A motley crew of gangbangers

Suddenly my little power point presentation seemed so stupid.

I thought, Oh, crap.  What did I get myself into?

In my own little world it hardly ever rains.  I’ve never gone hungry, always felt safe.  I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet.  In my own little world, population: me.  I try to stay awake through Sunday morning church.  I put a twenty in the plate, but I never give till it hurts.  I turn off the news when I don’t like what I see.  It’s easy to do when it’s population: me.

I am a suburban soccer mom who happens to be on staff at my church as the Community Involvement Coordinator.  It’s a pretty good gig.  I’m a good organizer so the day to day of the work fits my personality. I work part time and I get to help people.  I go home each day and can pat myself on the back because my work has meaning.

My confession is this: I like to sleep at night.  I like to keep pain and heartache and lepers at a distance.  So I coordinate things and congratulate myself, and look at the people who actually go out and do the serving with awe.  Where do they find the inner strength?  I am an introvert by nature.  I hate to “chat” with executives at cocktail parties, much less with people who are in some sort of pain.

Because this is my biggest fear.  That I might come to love one of these people, to care.  And then to have my heart broken by their story.  To be disturbed by what the world has done to them.  To lose some of the luxurious sleep I enjoy on my ridiculously soft temperapedic, pre-warmed mattress with the fluffy down comforter.

What if there’s a bigger picture?  What if I’m missing out?  What if there’s a greater purpose I could be living right now?  Outside my own little world…

The first time I saw them, it was probably March or April of last year and I was taking my first tour of the Newark YMCA., where there is a 260 bed Emergency Residential Shelter that houses the homeless.  Many of the families there have school-age children.  Some are single adults.  And then, there’s the floor for homeless youth.

Some of them are remanded by the courts to participate in the Y’s programming.  Sometimes, when their time is up, their families don’t want them back, so they stay.  Some have simply been kicked out of their homes and need a warm bed.  There are some girls, but mostly it’s young men.  Fifteen, sixteen.  On the verge of manhood with no real men in their lives to model themselves after, except maybe social workers and probation officers.

That first day that I saw them, they were sitting around a table.  They grew quiet when Victor, the Evening Activities Coordinator who was giving me the tour and is now a good friend, brought me to their floor.  They watched me with curious eyes.  Who’s that? Uncomfortable, completely out of my familiar zone, I gave them a quick smile without looking anyone in the eye.  Then I became incredibly interested in the cement and tile decor.

Stopped at a red light, looked out my window.  I saw a cardboard sign said “Help this homeless this homeless widow.  And just above that sign was the face of a human.  I thought to myself, God what have I been doing?  So I rolled down the window and I looked her in the eye.  How many times have I just passed her by?  So I gave her some money and I drove on through.  And my own little world was population: 2.

I first started to notice that God was changing my heart as I was driving down a section of the Garden State Parkway.  From the safety of the paved highway I could see the projects speeding by.  Burned out windows.  Broken down cars.  The kind of place where you really hope you don’t hit a red light.

I’d been thinking about my friends Debbie and Rob, who adopted 2 of their foster children, and lost the third when she was returned to her pedophile father.  Rob and Deb’s son had a dad who was in jail for child sexual abuse and a crack-addicted mother who’d left him alone for three days when he was eighteen months old.  Debbie and I used to have some really choice words for that waste of a human who could do that do a child.  We used to say that God had a special place in hell for people like that.  A space like the projects, where I would pass by and think about the awful things that must happen in places like that.

But that day, driving past the projects on the parkway, I had a different thought as I stared at this area that seemed so grey and dirty compared to the sun-filled day.  I thought about how angry God must be over what happened to Deb’s little boy.  About how He must be thinking, Who did that to my child?  And when I thought about the crack-addicted mother, I thought about how angry God must be.  About how He must be thinking, Who did that to my child?  Who hurt her so badly, got her so addicted, ruined her sense of human compassion and her mothering instinct that she would do such an abhorrent thing to her little boy?  Who did that to my child?

Because that crack-addicted mother was God’s little girl.

And God’s anger in born out of God’s love.

I was so surprised by this sudden new perspective, this compassion that had suddenly sprouted in my heart, that I knew it could only have been from God.  Now I looked at those projects and my heart broke.  God’s children live there.  

I had hated this woman — the crack addict I never met — for so long.  Every time I got a call from Deb about the challenges her son faces from being born addicted, from being left alone, from being forced to attend “visitations” for which she never showed,  I hated that woman.  And here I was now, understanding the magnitude of God’s love for her, and the true reason that God might be perceived as an angry God.  He is not necessarily angry at humanity.  He is angry for us.

The realization was highly inconvenient.

I knew I could never tell Deb.

Father, break my heart for what breaks yours.  Give me open hands and open doors.  Put your light in my eyes and let me see that my own little world is not about me.

It was in my quiet time, many months after that first tour of the Y, that I was praying and suddenly, I had an incredibly clear picture of those boys, sitting around that table, looking at me with their questions.  In the middle of them, Jesus stood, looking right at me.  As if He were using my prayer time to recreate some Michelangelo-esque tableau.  His eyes, however, held only one question: What are you going to do for my children?

What are you going to do?

I’m sure my reaction made God so proud.

Oh, come ON!  Not me, Lord.  You know I suck at this kind of stuff.  Surely there is a social worker somewhere who is better able to help those boys.  I don’t know anything about how to help them.  I’ll coordinate something.  It’ll be awesome.  It’ll be great.  But let me send some body else.

And in my mind’s eye, they all — Jesus and the boys — just stared at me.  In silence.

Crap.

The mentoring team I lead at church had been working for months to study best practices, training methods, termination SOP’s.  We had a vision to make a real difference in the lives of these kids.  We moved slowly, battling out ideas on late-night conference calls and in-person meetings.  We got scared at how much we didn’t know.  We moved slowly and cautiously, but move we did.

Meanwhile, Victor and his staff at the Y received a grant allowing them to bus kids on probation from Jersey City to their facility for an after school program designed to keep them off the streets and out of trouble.  The program is a term of their probation — if they don’t participate they go to jail instead.  Victor would sometimes spend the evening driving around Jersey City, plucking kids who were supposed to be there off the streets to bring them to the program.

These kids have, in general, a 4-block world view and don’t expect to live past the age of 18.  The idea is to expand their world view past Jersey City.  But I suppose that  even if a concrete, gang-infested neighborhood with candlelit memorials on every corner is your familiar place, stepping outside your comfort zone to safety might seem scary.  Especially for a child.  Until they begin to trust the staff at the Y, some of them don’t come unless Victor finds them.

He doesn’t find all of them.

The first round of kids were graduated from the program.  Some of the mentoring team and I attended the event.  There were hardly any family members in the room — it was mostly probation officers, judges and social workers.  Those kids were so proud, as well they should be.  The smiles they had on their faces told the story.  This was an incredible night in the lives of these kids, and there was even an audience that cared enough to be there for them.

Not all the kids who’d graduated came.  Victor tried to round them all up but when he finally spoke to them, they said why should they bother to celebrate this victory if there would be no family there to see it?

People got up to speak.  The president of the Y.  A judge, I think.  The one mother in the room who was involved and thankful for what the program did for her son.  And a few of the kids, in halting voices laced with a shaky confidence they weren’t yet used to — they said thank you to Victor and his team, and they hinted at a new belief in a future they’d never known they had.

I knew I’d been called specifically to do something for these kids.  And so I offered to do a life skills workshop with the graduates.  I figured, okay, I’m a life coach.  That makes sense.  I can do a life skills workshop.

That’s how I came to be in the conference room of my church offices with my silly power point presentation waiting for what was supposed to be twelve kids.  Only five came.  When this motley crew of gangbangers walked through the door, all swagger and attitude, I realized I was in the thick of it.  I was going to be face to face with these kids.  I was going to look them in the eye, get to know their names.  Their faces would be unavoidable.  Their stories would somehow become intertwined with my own, and my bed might never feel quite as soft again.  I took a deep breath and pretended to not be afraid.

I don’t want to miss what matters.  I want to be reaching out.  Show me the greater purpose, so I can start living right now.

Victor is wonderful with them.  It’s obvious that they respect him.  Take your hat off.  Sit up straight.  They respond.  I made so many mistakes that day, me with my silly power point.  I learned there’s a lot I don’t know about basketball and sneakers.  I learned I should never assume these kids can read.  I learned that these kids have built an incredibly thick wall of defense, but every once in a while you can chip through it and find the light inside.  I think we chipped through all but one.

He was just angry.

One wants to be an architect.

One wants to be a defense attorney.

Another wants to help people in Africa.

The last wants to give children in Haiti everything they could possibly need.

Because the Y’s Jersey City program has been so successful, four of these five boys have been removed from the program by their probation officers.  There are too many kids who need it, too many more coming down the probation pipeline.  So now these kids who have done so well in the safe haven the Y created for them between the hours of 3 pm and 9 pm Monday through Saturday will be back on the streets, where they got in trouble in the first place.  It seems a cruel twist of fate.

I know their names now.  Their faces come with me to bed.

Our mentoring program begins officially in four days.  The mentors have been trained and interviewed and background checked.  They’re going in.  Only one of the boys that was there at that workshop will be a part of the program.

I invite you to know these boys with me.

Micah

David

Ralph

Shawn

Tyrell

These are their real names.

***song lyrics are from Matthew West’s song My Own Little World****

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